Re-Thinking Buddhist Studies, a modest proposal

If the goal of Buddhist studies is to understand Buddhism, then the questions we should be asking are about what was/is important to Buddhists–instead of abstracting Buddhism out of its lived context, and treating it as a variation within a structure that is itself abstracted from liberal Protestant Christianity. How we formulate “Buddhism” as an object of study, both explicitly and implicitly, significantly predetermines what we can say about Buddhism. It is, therefore, necessary to avoid unreflectively adopting an anachronistic framework of understanding for our studies.

I recently encountered the idea that Christianity fetishizes doctrine (sorry don’t recall source). Thus, while there is some sense to focusing on doctrine in the study of Christianity, to presume the centrality of doctrine for the study of Buddhism is an argument based on the presumption that the analogy between Christianity and Buddhism is itself strong enough to make the following argument—

1. Christianity and Buddhism are similar in that they are both religions,

2. Christianity fetishizes doctrine,

Therefore Buddhism also fetishizes doctrine.

This argument is in fact a petitio principii fallacy, since the understanding of religion implicit in the first premise is itself an abstraction from Christianity, in other words it already includes the centrality of doctrine and smuggles that idea into Buddhism. Modernist claims that Buddhism is “really” a way of life, or “really” a philosophy, or “really” a psychology in no way avoid this presumption of doctrinal primacy. Such discursive shifts retain the doctrinal focus, while shifting from a religious frame to some other. These alternative discursive frames have their own presumptions and thereby simply introduce different sets of doctrinal commitments into the understanding of Buddhism.

While doctrine was important to many intellectuals within the Buddhist tradition, by analogy with our contemporary religious world, intellectuals make up a small proportion of adherents to any tradition. What has been important to a far larger group of Buddhist adherents has been practice. Again, the analogy with our current situation provides an argument by analogy for this view—the large proportion of, for example, mindfulness practitioners would seem to be only concerned with understanding that the practice is effective, that it will meet their needs. For the most part, reassurances that there is scientific evidence of its efficacy seem sufficient. This modern use of “science” displaces, but serves the same function of legitimation that traditional miracle tales served. There is an additional complication for Buddhist studies, however.

Many scholars working in Buddhist studies seem to implicitly identify textual studies (philology) with doctrinal studies. However, the issue that I am attempting to highlight here is not texts versus practice, but rather the primacy given to doctrine over practice. Textual studies apply to both subject matters, both questions about doctrine and questions about practice. Historically, however, the selection of texts to be studied appears to have been directed by an implicit assumption that doctrinal texts are the important ones, or alternatively, that the doctrinal content rather than, for example, the ritual use of texts is what is important.

As has been well documented by several scholars, this understanding of the project of Buddhist studies can be traced back to its origins in Euro-America in the mid- to late-19th century, when Buddhist studies was modeled on the new and then-exciting field of Biblical studies. The value seen in the study of Biblical texts was exactly doctrinal, however, and this has led to a covert selectivity of doctrinal texts or doctrinal contents of texts as defining the study of Buddhism. And while texts of that kind may be of interest to us as modern intellectuals, our interests do not define the historical realities of Buddhism. And, while our interests—whether philosophy, psychology, or neurosciences, for example—have their own kind of validity, we need to recognize that serving those interests by appropriating from Buddhism is a project separate from the study of Buddhism. For example, the economics of Buddhism is different from a Buddhist economics.

Just as tools for the study of doctrine—what I have alliteratively identified as concepts, categories and concerns—have been developed, so also do we need tools for the study of practices. However, just as the tools for the study of doctrine deriving from the Western intellectual tradition are problematic for the study of Buddhist thought, the tools for the study of practices developed in Western intellectual history need to be held as potentially problematic as well.

Instead, for example, such emic categories as those by which tantric rituals are organized provide one way of approaching practices in a Buddhist context. And tools such as syntactic analyses that are abstract enough to apply to any form of practice can be of use in thinking through the nature of practices as systematically organized activities.

This is not to say that the intellectual frameworks developed by Buddhist thinkers over two and a half millenia are not important—far from it. However, exclusive attention to doctrine without a comparable attention to practice distorts our perception of the tradition. The broader concern that I think needs to be the unifying theme of Buddhist studies is praxis, that is, the creative interaction between doctrine and practice. Understanding Buddhism—not as some abstract, ahistorical system, but rather as a living, historical continuity—requires that we understand both doctrine and practice exactly in their relation to one another, instead of in isolation from one another.

5 thoughts on “Re-Thinking Buddhist Studies, a modest proposal

  1. > For example, the economics of Buddhism is different from a Buddhist economics.

    Much the same logic applies to Buddhism Studies and Buddhist Studies. If we are talking about what academics do, then surely it ought to be Buddhism Studies, i.e. studying Buddhism, rather than “studies with a Buddhist flavour” (although this does describe a lot of academic study of Buddhism).

    Can you point to some explars of the kind of study you think we should be doing? Or is no one doing it yet?

    I do find it useful to think in terms of what Buddhists were doing as well as what they were thinking. I’ve argued that we need to take many texts that appear to be metaphysical (esp. Prajñāpāramitā) and see them as actually talking about epistemology. What those authors were *doing* was spending time in deep meditation secluded from sense and cognitive experience, by means of practices involving withdrawal of attention (anupalambhayogena). And in the resulting state pf emptiness there is no form, feeling, etc. Hence in the Heart Sutra… 空中 無色無受想行識. So it is not that form etc “don’t exist”, but that in samādhi they *don’t register*. There is doctrine involved, but without some idea of what it is like to practice formless meditations you cannot appreciate the point of view.

    Would this approach count?

    • Dear Jayarava, Thank you for your thoughtful comment.
      What comes to mind when you ask about other scholars are people who have an anthropological or sociological dimension to their training. I’ve been deeply impressed by Kate Crobsby and Andrew Skilton’s work, and I understand that there is a group at King’s working on contemporary monastic issues. Similarly Anne Blackburn’s work on monastic education, and also Jeffrey Samuels work on the same topic. Also the orientation of the Economics and Capitalism in the Study of Buddhism seminar of the American Academy of Religion has provided a venue for this kind of approach.
      The example you give, however, seems to have a different tonality or orientation, that is, the interpretation of doctrinal claims/systems by juxtaposition with practical experience, i.e., experience based on practice. And indeed, I (strongly) agree that lacking meditative experience severely handicaps understanding of what is being talked about.
      The one nuance that I think might be relevant, and I’m sure you’ve thought about this is that it is both the case that the delineation of epistemology and metaphysics is not as clearly demarcated as we are familiar with in modern Western philosophy, but also that the relation between the two follows different intellectual contours.
      Taking that kind of context (intellectual and practical) into account in the process of understanding texts would I think count as moving forward an interpretive approach that goes beyond the philological and any default adoption of the concepts, categories and concerns of Western scholarship—which would also in the case you suggest mean avoiding the tendency toward psychological or psychotherapeutic interpretations.
      As for other scholars working in this area, you are no doubt already familiar with the work of Maria Heim. I find what I understand as her scepticism about the universality of the categories of W. philosophy to be very refreshing.
      Sorry if this is a bit rambling, but I appreciate the opportunity you provide to kind of “think out loud.”
      all best, Richard

      • Further clarification: experience and philology complement one another. Given that in the US there is a popular anti-intellectualism of the sort “everything I ever needed to know about Buddhism I learned on my meditation cushion,” I do not wish to appear to support that extreme view.
        Not so extreme, but along the same lines, an analogy that comes to mind is some recent publications by people who are both psychotherapists and B. practitioners of one kind or another on “Buddhist psychology.” Even those that are not simply Western psychology with Buddhist condiments (like Tabasco added to fried potatoes), a lack of training in Buddhist studies per se is a handicap. Sometimes the results are almost humorous, but all too many inaccuracies creep into the writing.
        again, thanks

  2. I agree about that extreme anti-intellectualist view, but I do find that most commentators are puzzled by Prajñāpāramitā references to there being no form in emptiness because they have no conception of (sensory & cognitive) experience ceasing in meditation, and they do not understand skandhas as related to experience. To me this suggests that the Prajñāpāramitā authors did adequately delineate epistemology from metaphysics (as did the author of the Kaccānagotta Sutta SN 12:15) and that it is modern commentators who do not do so.

    I’m not as well read as you seem to think (I’ve read Samuels book on the origins of Yoga and Tantra but none of the others), but this problem seems to me to arise from a lack of critical engagement with Buddhist ideas. Of the scholars I follow on what I see is two main streams: 1. the production of editions of ever more obscure texts and 2. more and more uncritical descriptions of Buddhist doctrine on its own terms. Very occasionally I see something like Jonathan Silk’s Open Philology Project at Leiden or Joseph Walser’s book Genealogies of Mahāyana (which I have started reading).

    Take, for example, Nāgārjuna. Here is a philosopher with no real grasp of the distinction between epistemology and metaphysics, even though the distinction is fairly clear (to me) in his sources. He ties himself in knots trying to explain reality using an epistemology expressed for the purposes of describing the cessation of experience in meditation, and makes it worse by doing so in verse. His explanations of time and movement are just stupid. But as far as Buddhism Studies is concerned he’s a *genius* because no one actually goes beyond description to criticism (with perhaps the single except of Richard P Hayes, who privately expressed contrary views). I find this exasperating. Why do we scholars keep *endorsing* this nonsense?

    While it is probably true that we are not critical enough of Western Philosophy, we are not critical at all of Buddhist philosophy. We make it seem that medieval Buddhists had some kind of coherent critique of modern Western philosophy. But this is naive at best. Buddhist philosophy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny outside of the hermetic world of Buddhism and Buddhism Studies.But why would we even expect it to?

    Don’t even get me started on the lack of critical scholarship on the Heart Sutra, the supposedly “most popular Mahāyana text”, which is not at all popular amongst Buddhism Studies scholars apparently. I’ve now published two articles on basic mistakes in Conze’s Sanskrit edition of the Heart Sutra – Sanskrit 101 mistakes, like a noun in the wrong case, a transitive verb treated as intransitive, a sentence consisting only of adjectives, etc. Mistakes that were overlooked by the “experts” for 70 years! Negligence is the polite term for it.

    I think perhaps its time for some immodest proposals.

    • Thinking about your question regarding the profile of Buddhist studies textual scholarship, I believe that it is still suffering from having been created in the second half of the 19th century on the model of Biblical studies. Specifically, there is a continuing tendency to venerate the founding texts of the tradition—as it was being created as an object of Western scholarship. So just as there is seemingly endless Christian scholarship on everything from some section of the Hebrew bible, to a letter of Paul, to a medieval commentary by Augustine, to the works of Schleiermacher, and so on—all with little critical reflection beyond theological proliferation which is taken as justification enough—so the business of Buddhist studies engages in proliferating its own ongoing scholarly studies of the “sacred texts” or “great books” or whatever they are called, without asking what should be the self-reflective question key to scholarship that actually means something: what question are we trying to answer?
      The questions that you raise (as I understand your more general project) are ones that require you to bring to bear a twofold method—a combination of philology and phenomenology: or what does the text say? answered by philology, and what does the text mean? answered by phenomenology. Such clarity regarding the questions one is asking is rare.
      thank you for your inquiries and comments, they are emboldening me to undertake a critique of an essay that I’ve been hesitating about doing given how much time and effort is involved in detailing errors, but perhaps calling out an absence of logic and critical thinking will be a worthy undertaking

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